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When Someone Close Has Cancer...


Update on Jessie:'  Jessie's surgery for stomach cancer yesterday was successful.'  Now, she has several weeks of recuperation and rest ahead.'  Based on reports from her surgeon, the prognosis is very good. She is recovering in New York City with her husband and family by her side.

Here are some words of wisdom from Jessie, originally published in an October 2008 issue of Parade magazine.

6 Ways to Help When Someone Has Cancer

The people who love me have made each of my cancer diagnoses easier to bear. They have helped me understand complicated medical information when I was too anxious to think. They listened to my worries, did my errands when I was too tired to move, and distracted me from my pain with funny cards.'  Hundreds of people have told me about how their families, friends, and co-workers helped them manage the challenges that cancer brings. Here are some things you can do.

1) Acknowledge our situation.

When you know that we have cancer and you don't say anything about it, we feel even more isolated and alone. Some people even family members'are uncomfortable saying anything.

They fear that raising the topic is too personal or will make us cry. Believe me, much more harm is done by keeping silent. Just say, 'I hear you have had some bad news. I am so sorry. I hope things go well for you.' It will mean a lot.

2) Offer help only if you can deliver.

When others first hear we have cancer, many say, I'll do anything I can to help. That's a kind response, because we often really do need help. But we may find it difficult to ask. We may be too distressed to know what we need. Others need less help at the beginning and more as treatment progresses. If you offer aid, be specific: Can I bring you dinner on Tuesday, or, Can I drive you to your chemotherapy appointments? Only make a commitment if you can deliver. We are depending on you. And remember: Sometimes simply chatting over a cup of tea or quietly holding our hand is what we need.

3) Guard our privacy.

Being treated for cancer means that any sense of physical privacy we had has evaporated as we parade around in backless hospital gowns, poked and prodded from all sides. Help us to regain some small shred of privacy and control by not talking about how we are doing with others'even family members'without our permission. Ask us what information we would like you to share and with whom. If we are too ill or too young or too confused to tell you, let your past experience with us and your good judgment guide your discretion.

4) Listen to us.

America is a relentlessly upbeat society: Keep a positive attitude! Don't give up hope! But many people with cancer swing between hope and fear, optimism and despair. A hospital chaplain told me about meeting a couple on their way to a chemotherapy appointment for the wife's breast cancer. The chaplain asked how they were doing, and the husband volunteered, She's doing great! She is going to be fine!' His wife turned to him and said, You know, you always say that, and then at night you go to sleep, and I lie there, and I'm so frightened and sad'and I don't have anyone I can talk to about it.

5) Remember that hope is a gift.

We don't always feel it. When you insist that we be hopeful and positive, we feel we have failed when we aren't. When you insist that we be hopeful and positive, we feel we have failed when we aren't. Don't cut off the possibility that we will share our burden with you and the opportunity to support us through hard times.

6) Ensure our dignity.

Dignity is the public recognition of our self-worth. Cancer and its treatment often make us feel like we have been reduced to just a diseased body, with little to offer to those we love. Remind us that we are beloved mothers and sons and sisters and grandfathers; that we are valued work colleagues and neighbors. Reassure us that we bring to this challenge the wisdom that comes from overcoming difficulties great and small.

Some say that having cancer is like climbing a steep mountain. No matter how much you love a person with cancer, you can't climb the mountain for us, though you would like to. But you can make sure that we have nutritious food. You can help us find path markers and steady us when we stumble. And when our spirits sag, your patience, love, and respect can encourage us to take the next step'and then the next one.

We are collecting notes for Jessie, please feel free to send along any messages or comments and we will be sure to deliver them to her.


More Blog Posts by Jessie Gruman

author bio

Jessie C. Gruman, PhD, was founder and president of the Center for Advancing Health from 1992 until her death in July 2014. Her experiences as a patient — having been diagnosed with five life-threatening illnesses — informed her perspective as an author, advocate and lead contributor to the Prepared Patient Blog. Her book, AfterShock, helps patients and caregivers navigate their way through the health care system following a serious or life-threatening diagnosis. The free app, AfterShock: Facing a Serious Diagnosis, offers a pocket guide based on the book. | More about Jessie Gruman

Tags for this article:
Cancer   Jessie Gruman   Relationships/Social Support   Make Good Treatment Decisions  

Comments on this post
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cmcurrie says
September 28, 2010 at 3:33 PM

Dearest Jessie,
I know in my heart of hearts that you will survive this cancer also, and you will live out your full life . . . though with much more realism and gratitude that most other people!! Your experiences, your healthy outlook, and your effort to help those in need sustained me through my cancer -- as you have for thousands of other women, men and children.

Grad school would not have been as enjoyable if you had not been there -- your irrepressable spirit remotivated me in graduate school during the many times I lost faith in being able to do good for the world. We need you. You will endure, and you will -- once again -- return to the state of health.

Everyone wonders if we did something to cause or deserve our ill-health, and the only answer is that beyond avoiding the environmental risk factors, as a research psychologist I have not yet seen evidence that we think ourselves into these diagnoses. The mind goes to that idea. . . a wish for control, but it is not real.

Good news so far!!!! I am praying for you.

Love, peace, and happiness,
Cathie M. Currie, Ph.D.

CancerFree says
October 7, 2010 at 5:04 PM

Yeah, I agree, you do need someone along side for the ride. Cancer treatments just drain your whole body. I have a hard time remembering the medications I have to take and when. Nausea is the worst feeling in the world and to do anything yourself is nearly impossible. You can follow progress on YouTube: cancerfreezone is my channel.

Good advice.

Activist Patients, Cancer, and Medical Care says
December 10, 2010 at 6:23 AM

[...] ago Jessie wrote a wonderful succinct guide for what to do when someone close to us has cancer (see here). But being an activist patient doesn’t require a PhD, as exemplified by a former patient of [...]